Biden’s State of the Union Showcased a President in Denial

Look past the theatrics of a feisty, bellowing president and reactionary hecklers. Joe Biden’s State of the Union address didn’t offer working-class people a clear economic alternative or signal real opposition to Israel’s brutal war in Gaza.

US president Joe Biden delivers the annual State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress in the House chamber at the Capital building on March 7, 2024 in Washington, DC. (Shawn Thew-Pool / Getty Images)

Last night’s State of the Union (SOTU) address made official what we’ve heard now from countless pieces of reporting: despite every warning sign about his handling of both the economy and Israel’s genocide in Gaza, President Joe Biden will continue stubbornly doubling down on his approach to both — despite the majority of both official and public opinion rejecting his handling of the two issues.

The president’s address saw the welcome infusion of pro-worker, economically populist notes that Biden has historically been allergic to. He invited and shouted out United Auto Workers president Shawn Fain to the event, called out billionaires for paying too little in taxes, and once again attacked the GOP for their plans to cut Social Security and Medicare.

But a closer read of the speech suggests that, rhetoric aside, the president is continuing to resist pressure, both from the streets and from within his own governing coalition, to change course on his handling of the Israeli war and to run on an ambitious progressive platform akin to the one he won the 2020 election. That could spell continuing trouble for the president, whose prospects at this early point in the campaign look dismal.

An Unusual Economic Comeback

Reportedly mystified by Americans’ economic dissatisfaction and convinced the problem is simply pessimistic media coverage, recent reports have indicated Biden’s reelection plans are to simply keep insisting the economy is in great shape, while putting the lion’s share of his energy toward hammering Donald Trump over January 6. This was more or less what we got last night.

The United States today is embroiled in a slow-burning economic crisis: child poverty has seen a record-high spike; homelessness has soared to never-before-seen levels; cost-burdened renters are at an all-time high; evictions are back to pre-pandemic levels; and food insecurity is rising for the first time in a decade. The president of the Oregon Food Bank recently declared that “we are living through the worst rates of hunger since the Great Depression,” just one of countless food pantries around the country that has seen demand for their help explode.

You would have no idea any of this is happening from listening to the president’s speech last night, in which he boasted that “our economy is literally the envy of the world.”

“It doesn’t make news, but in a thousand cities and towns, the American people are writing the greatest comeback story never told,” Biden said last night, at a time when financial stress over high prices is through the roof across the country: “More people have health insurance today than ever before,” he boasted, even as he has presided over nearly eighteen million Americans losing their Medicaid coverage, the vast majority of them (70 percent) eligible for the program, but thrown off for procedural reasons enabled by his administration.

Biden laid out some plans to address these struggles: capping the price of insulin for all Americans, instead of just those on Medicare (something Democrats could have done two years ago but didn’t); expanding the number of drugs whose prices Medicare can negotiate to five-hundred (albeit over the course of a decade); a $400-a-month tax credit to help homeowners, though not renters, pay their mortgage costs, which have soared to a median of nearly $1,800 a month.

But the ambitious promises of Biden’s 2020 campaign, like the public health insurance option he occasionally mentioned on the trail then immediately dropped upon winning, now seem forgotten. So are popular provisions of Biden’s never-passed Build Back Better (BBB) bill, like lowering the Medicare eligibility age and universal pre-K, which, respectively went either entirely unmentioned or watered down with wishy-washy language (“providing access to pre-school”). Bernie Sanders reportedly urged Biden to make lowering the Medicare age and including dental, vision, and hearing coverage in the program part of his 2024 platform. Neither made their way into the speech last night.

The only exceptions to the BBB amnesia, once the centerpiece of Biden’s presidency, were the child tax credit, which Biden pledged to restore; raising the minimum wage, tossed off in a single line while leaving out the $15 value; and raising the corporate tax rate, which occupied by far the most speaking time of any of these proposals. On that matter, Biden reiterated his 2021 plan to raise the corporate tax rate to 28 percent — in reality, a permanent tax cut, since it would hike the rate to a level seven points lower than it had been before Trump slashed it.

The president did move toward voter concerns on one issue, though. Even as he downplayed the level of economic hardship, he elevated the issue of the border, again touting his farright border bill from last month, and for the second time publicly urging Trump to work together with him to get it passed. At one point, he held up a pin given to him by far-right Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene bearing the name of Laken Riley, the Georgian nursing student killed by an undocumented immigrant, whose death has become a flash point for conservatives looking to use it to push a dismantling of the US immigration and asylum systems.

In response to the heckling of Greene, who the Biden campaign terms an “unhinged conspiracy theorist,” the president, off the cuff, said Riley’s name and that she had been “killed by an illegal.” It’s yet one more sign that with his reelection chances in peril, Biden and his team have decided to wholesale adopt the far right’s framing of this issue and its solution — a framing that for years, both Democrats and much of the press decried as racist and even fascist.

Avoiding Their Hatred

Biden began his speech with a reference to one of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR)’s SOTU addresses. But even at its most populist and pro-worker, Biden’s speech was a far cry from the address that FDR — the president that he and his advisors have self-consciously and very publicly harkened back to — gave, like Biden, on the year of his reelection in 1936. That speech, too, was delivered at a time of widespread economic suffering and was overwhelmingly concerned with an internal threat to democracy — or, in Roosevelt’s words, with the fact that “popular opinion is at war with a power-seeking minority.”

But unlike Biden, who last night gestured at Trump and the Republicans behind him as “the greatest threat to our democracy,” Roosevelt explicitly identified this minority not as a partisan one, but as “the domination of government by financial and industrial groups,” situating this battle for democracy firmly within his larger economic program.

These “numerically small but politically dominant” forces, the “many private and selfish interests” and “unscrupulous money-changers,” were “seek[ing] the restoration of their selfish power,” Roosevelt said, an internal battle he warned was playing out all over a world where fascism was on the rise.

Though Roosevelt stressed the “substantial material progress” the country had made under his leadership, he also took care to acknowledge the very real suffering Americans still felt four years into the New Deal, even as he framed it as a warning of how these “determined groups” planned to turn back the clock: the “several millions of unemployed citizens who face the very problem of existence, of getting enough to eat,” the “children who have worked all day in the factories,” the “the men and women who live in conditions of squalor in country and in city.” These were all reasons, Roosevelt said, that for all the strides the country had made, he would “recommend to the Congress that we advance.”

Measured by this benchmark, Biden’s populist address last night (“If you want to make a million bucks — great! Just pay your fair share in taxes”) looks remarkably conservative and unambitious.

Staying the Course on Gaza

The section of Biden’s address on the war on Gaza — the issue currently driving a 1968-style internal rebellion against the president, with hundreds of thousands of Democratic voters threatening to torpedo his reelection in November over his unconditional support for it — was also lacking.

The depth of outrage at the president was made clear when antiwar protesters blocked Biden’s motorcade as he traveled to deliver the speech, holding up signs that read, among other things, “Biden’s legacy is genocide.” Inside Congress, keffiyeh-clad socialist and left-wing members of the “Squad” sat stone-faced, holding up signs calling for a “lasting cease-fire” and to “stop sending bombs,” and refusing to applaud for the leader of their party as he entered or to join in Democratic chants of “four more years.”

Biden at last was able to publicly display the empathy, which he’s long made a part of his political brand, to the Palestinian people — something he’s struggled or simply refused to do until now. But on the policy front, there was little in the speech that will quell the growing intraparty fracture his own fellow, centrist lawmakers are urging him to do more about.

Rather than announcing he would do as previous presidents have done and condition US aid to Israel to force an end to the war — as humanitarian groups, antiwar activists, and centrist Democratic lawmakers are all urging, and as the majority of every demographic of Americans now prefers — Biden opted for another convoluted half-measure to let him kick the can down the road. The US military would pay for and deploy “an emergency mission” to build a floating pier on the Mediterranean Sea off the shores of Gaza, to eventually “receive large ships carrying food, water, medicine, and temporary shelters” for the Palestinians trapped there.

The president, it seems, has decided to simply recommit to existing policy that in recent weeks has moved beyond being merely a target of disdain among antiwar voices, but from establishment ones, too: from CNN anchors Fareed Zakaria and Christiane Amanpour, to a former US Central Command communications director and former US ambassador to the region. For the past week, with aid trucks held up for weeks by Israel, the Biden administration has been airlifting a meager amount of aid (a drop which this morning tragically killed five Palestinians when an aid pallet’s parachutes failed to deploy) into what is now effectively a famine-stricken concentration camp, on the basis that Israel’s continued bombing and siege of the territory can go on as long as it wants.

As many have pointed out, among the many absurdities of this situation is the fact that the United States is expending money and effort to circumvent a blockade that it is itself responsible for — and which is being put in place by what is meant to be its closest friend in the region.

Given the US-Israeli relationship and given that the United States is overwhelmingly bankrolling and supplying the Israeli war effort, the White House can simply demand that Israel let in whatever amount of aid it wants. Instead, it has been meekly asking nicely, only to be ignored by Israeli officials and forced to airlift supplies like it was a second-rate power dealing with an adversary.

Biden’s floating pier idea is more of this, only in a more elaborate, absurd packaging serving mostly to highlight how servile the president is to Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Besides the obvious problem of trying to alleviate an urgent humanitarian crisis with a project that will take weeks to complete, “the risk of mission creep is a very serious concern,” says former CIA analyst and Defense Priorities public policy manager Michael DiMino, who warns that US ships and personnel will be exposed to attack and sabotage during that time. Then there are questions about what follows.

“Who is going to get the aid ashore? What will the security cordon look like on the beach? Will US troops or the Israelis be responsible for securing the port itself?” he says. “I could see US troops getting involved in these missions over time if we’re not careful.”

The administration is boasting that it worked “very closely with the Israelis in developing this initiative,” but at this point, that means nothing. As far back as October, the administration claimed it had gotten a “commitment” from Netanyahu to deliver more aid to Gaza, one it would proudly and periodically reiterate in the months ahead — only for Israeli forces to then hold the aid up and even open fire on aid trucks whose movement had been coordinated with them. Sure enough, Israeli officials are already qualifying that they’ll only let the aid go through “after proper security checks,” opening the door to the Netanyahu government once again blocking this latest effort by Biden.

Meanwhile, US officials themselves have admitted throughout this war that the point of these relatively meager humanitarian efforts is mere public relations to quiet growing outrage at Israel’s actions so the war can go on.

Just this week, Vice President Kamala Harris told a visiting Israeli minister behind closed doors that the White House wanted to keep backing Israel — which has made very clear it plans to eventually invade Rafah, cease-fire or no cease-fire — and that cooperating with US aid efforts was a way for Israel “to help us help you” do that.

In sum, this policy should please no one. If you’re a left-leaning voter concerned about human rights and Palestinian suffering, then this will do little to nothing to fix the urgent and rapidly worsening humanitarian crisis Israel is deliberately causing in Gaza. If you’re an America-first conservative worried about fiscal responsibility and US prestige, this policy loads yet more costs on the US taxpayer at Israel’s behest, while continuing to make the United States look weak, pushed around and humiliated by its own client state.

A Worrisome Future

The president and his team are undoubtedly thrilled with the speech. Aside from pandering to the far right, Biden made no major embarrassing trip up, was far more energized than his average public appearance, and included just enough populist notes to strike a nerve with the public. CNN’s polling shows that a majority of viewers (65 percent) had a positive response to the address.

But this figure looks less encouraging the deeper you delve into the numbers. That same polling also shows this proportion is the lowest such share out of all of Biden’s State of the Union addresses so far, and in fact is the lowest positive reaction of any State of the Union speech given by a president — including Trump and a lame-duck George W. Bush — going back to at least 1998.

More worrying for anyone concerned with preventing a Trump win in November is what the content of the speech signals: that the president is sticking to the course he’s charted thus far that has made him the most unpopular president in modern history, dismissing voters’ concerns about the economy, while rebuffing a vocal (and pivotal) segment of his base’s increasingly vocal opposition to his support for Israel’s genocide.

The president may have had a good night. But it could well be leading to a very bad one eight months from now.